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What the Poor Taught Me

A 2009 study by Tomas Rees on the relationship between poverty and religiousness OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfound that personal insecurity (due to stressful situations, such as poverty) was an important determinant of religiosity.[1] The poor tend to be more religious.

I find the faith of the poor both intriguing and challenging. Intriguing – because I wonder why the poor would turn to God and Christ? Challenging – because they want to know the reality of God made possible in Christ – not a message or a theological proposition.  I would have imagined that they would be angry at God, and blame Him for their circumstances –  for their poverty and the injustices they face. Why would they ask God (or anyone for that matter) for forgiveness, when it would seem that they have been the ones who have been sinned against. From my perspective, it seemed that God has betrayed and failed them.

In a recent project, we asked the poor why they chose to follow Christ. We interviewed forty-one individuals who are either slum dwellers in Bangalore, India or destitute Syrian refugees in Lebanon. All of them had been clearly identified as followers of Christ by Christian workers in the area, attested by the changes in their lives, their hunger for the Word and prayer, their turning away from the god(s) and idols they had worshiped, and their desire and passion to only worship Christ. Some had even been baptized.

When asked how they become followers of Christ and why they chose to worship only Him, most (80%+) spoke about a supernatural encounter with the living God, who had answered prayer, healed them, provided for their daily needs, done miracles in their lives, or spoken to them in a dream or vision. They had cried out to God in the Name of Jesus and He had heard them. This is not the prosperity gospel, as none of those interviewed spoke about wanting to become rich through their access to God. What they were seeking was a God who cared for them in their desperation and destitution. This is what enabled them to live their daily lives with some semblance of dignity. Their understanding and awareness of sin and the need for forgiveness came later as they grew in their faith. Strangely, none of them spoke about liberation, revolution, or trying to change the unjust social and political systems that trapped them in poverty.

Why was I surprised by this?! Ed Rommen, who had been a missionary in Europe, and then became an Orthodox priest upon his return home to the US, writes that too often we have focused on getting the content of the Gospel right – of it being contextualized so that people can understand. Evangelism is too focused on information – ensuring the relevance of the message of the Gospel in different cultures, and very little on the reality and accessibility of the Person of Christ. “So, whatever it is, contextualization involves mediation, not only of information about God, but the facilitation of a personal encounter with the saving, forgiving, all present, Lord of life, Jesus Christ.” For Rommen, the Gospel is not merely a message, but a Person. Evangelism has to be more than a verbal presentation of the Gospel. It also involves providing space for people to encounter Christ.

An incident in the life of Jesus brings this into focus. As He approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging“When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”” (Luke 18: 36-38)

What the blind beggar was asking for was not mercy and forgiveness from sin, but mercy from the all-powerful God to deliver him from the crushing bondage of blindness and the resulting curse of poverty. It is not that the poor don’t need forgiveness. It is only as they encounter and experience the living God, that they begin to understand grace and the need for forgiveness. I am realizing that the poor seek a God who is real to them, who would hear them, and care for them. Encountering such a God is Good News to them.

The pastor of our church here, this Good Friday spoke about how when the curtain in the Temple separating the Holy of Holies was torn in half, it opened the way for us to approach God. It also unleashed God, who had been hidden in the Holy of Holies, into the world. His life-giving presence raised many faithful believers from the dead. The incredible power of His presence shook the very foundations of the earth through an earthquake.

God was now present in the world in a way He hadn’t been since the Fall. The reality of God who is present, who is with us – is absolutely foundational in the biblical narrative. He was there in the garden. When the relationship was broken, He re-establishes His presence in the Temple. And at the end of time “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). In the in-between season of the Kingdom being “now but not yet”, God’s presence in this broken world continues through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is this accessible and compassionate God – Immanuel – that the poor seek. As I listened to the poor, and read and reread the interviews, I found my spirit soaring, realizing how real God is. They reminded me of what Solomon wrote about – what an earthly king should do, and what our heavenly King does.

For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help,                                                           The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save. Ps. 72:12-13 (NASB)

[1] Tomas James Rees, “Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?” Journal of Religion and Society Vol. 11 (2009). Also see Steve Crabtree, “Religiosity Highest in World’s Poorest Nations,” Gallup Global Reports, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poorest-nations.aspx%5Cnhttp://www.gallup.com/poll/142727/Religiosity-Highest-World-Poorest-Nations.aspx.

 

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Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria, October 25, 2016

This plenary presentation was made at the ACCORD Annual meeting in North Carolina  on Oct. 25, 2016 by Rupen Das to the 70+ Christian US relief and development member NGOs. It is a slightly long read.

I was asked to share my perspective on the Syrian conflict and the humanitarian crisis and where I see it going.

There are times in history when because of the horrors of the events, the international community is forced to take stock. In recent history, the Biafran crisis of the late 1960s was one such time, out of which MSF was formed and a new way of responding to humanitarian crises began to take shape. The Rwandan genocide was another such time. Our collective failure resulted in the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the Sphere Standards.

With the Syrian crisis, I sense we are approaching another such time, when we will need to ask ourselves – is there another way of doing things. However, we are not there yet, and probably won’t be for another few years, because the brutality of this conflict has not seeped into our consciousness yet.

I want to share four observations on the present crisis and where it is going and the I’ll conclude with a couple of comments.

  1. Present reality

The Syrian crisis and its overflow into Iraq and the surrounding countries is THE defining humanitarian crisis in the world today. It will enter the vocabulary of humanitarian workers on par with the Biafran crisis, the Ethiopian famine, the Rwandan genocide, Cambodia, the Balkan conflicts, Sierra Leon, Liberia, and many others. Since the Rwandan and the Balkan crises, this is the largest displacement of people with 4.7 million known refugees, and at least 13.5 million inside Syria needing humanitarian aid – many of them having been internally displaced. At least 400,000 have been killed, 1/3rd of them civilians. Eastern Aleppo today is being compared with Sarajevo, as the place where the international community lost all credibility and its moral conscience as a result.

It is not just about the numbers. The stories of the refugees and the IDPs are horrifying at the best. Last month in an informal settlement in Adana in Turkey I met refugee children with burn scars and shrapnel wounds from bombings and rocket attacks. In Lebanon I heard stories of children witnessing family members and friends being killed. A whole generation of children have no access to education, and most of them are on the streets begging or working so that the family would have enough to live on. We’ve seen this before in Cambodia and Rwanda, where a whole generation is a lost – this time it is the children who lose out, not just the lost opportunities, but tens of thousands have been traumatized by the war.

The crisis is no longer limited to the neighboring hosting countries, the camps and the settlements. The refugee influx into Europe is stretching the social fabric of countries in Europe with the rise in xenophobia and racism, fear of terrorism, and questions about what does it mean to European, German, Dutch, or Swede. The possibilities of extreme right wing xenophobic politics influencing governments are growing

The human impact of this conflict will be felt for generations.

  1. Complexity of the Syrian Crisis

The first issue is that this is not just another war. The Syrian crisis is one of the most complex politically. Logistically, it is one of the most challenging to implement.BBC in a recent report based on interviews with numerous experts stated that the conflict could last at least another ten years. This is in line with all the research on civil wars since WWII. The research shows that if a civil war is not resolved within the first two years, they will then drag on. The data indicates that half of all civil wars lasted at least for 15 years or more, while others averaged about 7 years. The Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years. We are now only into the 5th year of the Syrian conflict.There is no political will to end this conflict, as all the parties are deeply   entrenched in their positions. The complexity of having the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran and the Shiites, Turkey, the Kurds, Europe, and now China involved – each with their own agenda, does not allow for much common ground. Each of these countries or groups are either directly engaged in combat or are funding and arming proxy militias.  At last count, there are at least a 1,000 militias operating inside Syria.

The challenge for humanitarian agencies is to figure out how to fund the humanitarian response over this length of time and deal with donor fatigue, when so many other emergencies get the media headlines and political priorities of donor agencies. Our existing mechanism of project funding – some of which can be multi-year – meaning 2-3 years, does not even begin to address the challenges. The UN agencies repeatedly show that they are significantly underfunded – which then translates into fewer beneficiaries and less aid to those who receive assistance.We are now seeing the impact of that. There are increasing number of cases of chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – which we all know has a significant long-term impact on children and their well-being. More and more mothers are reporting that they are unable to breastfeed because of the stress and trauma they experience.

The second issue on complexity is understanding the dynamics of this conflict. Early in the crisis I had written an analysis which stated that the conflict was being fought in three theatres.

There is the military conflict – which we all know about and follow with varying degrees of understanding.

The second theatre where the conflict is being fought is in the media. Early in the crisis, groups of opposition members were being trained in Turkey by western governments to become journalists who would provide an alternate version of the conflict to what was being provided by the regime.

This conflict is intense and yet subtle, with manipulations of stories, images, and half-truths. Language and words are critical. When do civilians who are killed become a war crime, and when is it collateral damage? Somewhere in the legal jargon of trying to differentiate between the two and justify our actions, we have lost our humanity.

One of the reasons journalists are being denied access to the war zones is so that each party would have the freedom to portray reality as they would like it to be. The objective is to sway public opinion and political decisions. It takes tremendous wisdom and discernment to know what is behind the stories and images and what the truth is.

The third theatre the conflict is being fought in is the humanitarian sector. Agencies in government controlled areas have to have approval from the regime and are then restricted in what they can do and where they can go. Those operating in rebel controlled areas either have to negotiate access with the rebels under very strict restrictions, or have to hand over the humanitarian supplies to the rebels to distribute.

The regime will often deny aid agencies to operate in rebel held areas to force people to move into government controlled areas, so that the government would be perceived as the protector of its citizens. All the large rebel groups have humanitarian departments that run bakeries, ensure supplies of food, cooking gas and other basic essentials. They want to be perceived as being able to govern.

It is extremely hard to be neutral in this conflict and to use “do no harm” principles. If we abide by the Red Cross Code of Conduct and believe that the humanitarian imperative comes first, does that override the fact that by doing so I will need to affirm the legitimacy of a rebel group or of the regime?

I remember once speaking with a USAID official and he asked if we could access the least serviced areas inside Syria – which are the rebel controlled areas. And at the same time he emphasized that we were not to have any contact with deemed terrorist organizations. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the request, but had the wisdom not to.

We made a decision in the first year of the conflict that we would not align ourselves with any of the parties in the conflict. The loophole we found was that local churches inside Syria did not have to get government approval to provide humanitarian aid. So we set up an underground operation of getting funds into Syria, training people, doing assessments, and ensuring accountability for funds and supplies. In the very early days it was only us and Oxfam who could operate like this. Today there are still only a handful of agencies that have maintained their neutrality inside Syria.

But this has huge risks. The same standards for procurement, accounting and audit, and verification of data for assessments and monitoring cannot be maintained. Evaluation is rarely possible. Our traditional models of funding and project design are not relevant in such highly insecure environments with populations that are mobile. This is not to mention issue of protection of staff and partners, and trying to implement the People in Aid Code.

  1. The Role of International Humanitarian Law and the Rules of War

Since the 2003 Iraq war, international humanitarian law and the rules of war have almost ceased to be a consideration by combatants in the region. With the Syrian conflict, simple issues of humanitarian access, humanitarian space, protection of humanitarian workers, of civilians and non-combatants, protection of places of religious worship and hospitals, the issue of conditionality of aid and so much more are ignored by all parties in the conflict. Having observed this first hand, in 2009 I wrote about humanitarian space in unconventional or asymmetric warfare. The rules of war – the Geneva Conventions – were drafted to mitigate the human impact in wars fought between nation states. All the conflicts today are either between non-state actors, or between a government and a non-state actor. As a result, it is very easy to justify that the rules of war do not apply to these conflicts. So we justify torture, summary executions, forcible eviction of civilians from their homes, using civilians as human shields, starvation and rape as weapons of war.

Some of you may have noted that last week the ICRC tried to contact ISIS in Mosul in Mosul to ensure protection of civilians, but failed.

Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined says that the times have improved and that fewer people are dying from conflicts today than they have previously. However, in the conflicts that are still ongoing, the brutality has not diminished and the way we fight the wars has taken a step back.

  1. The Religious Dimension of this conflict

As humanitarians we do not like to speak about religion because we treat people on the basis of need and not because of race, ethnicity or religion. Yet this crisis has a religious dimension that few previous emergencies have had. Our reading of history is a secular one and we interpret geopolitics on the basis of power and greed, and do not understand the deep undercurrents of religion in the Syrian crisis. Regardless of what some analysts say, one major dimension of the conflict is the Sunni-Shia struggle dating back to 680 AD and the battle of Karbala. Many of you may have noted that the senior most Saudi cleric a few months ago proclaimed that the Shias and the Iranians were not Muslims and should not be allowed to go on the Hajj.

We all are aware of the anti-Muslim sentiments across Europe, Australia, and here in North America. These are specifically targeted at refugees and migrants, most of whom are Muslims.

Religion is an integral part of life in the Middle East. Everybody has their religion printed on their ID cards. Politics and elections take place on the basis of religion and not issues. It is not enough to say that we operate on humanitarian principles and do not take religion into consideration when assessing need. The very foundations of society in the Middle East are based on the fact that each tribe takes care of their own. Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century wrote about the way tribes survive in the desert is by taking care of their own. They are really not concerned with other tribes. This attitude is still very prevalent in the Middle East today.

In our humanitarian aid program, we cannot be blind to the religious dimensions. Christians helping Muslims has a huge impact, when it is assumed that Christians will only help Christian. On the flip side, a question that many Arab Christians are asking is if the Christian humanitarian agencies are also concerned about Christians in need – or are the agencies going overboard to help Muslims, and Yezidis to make a point that they are not being biased. Not an easy question, nor are there easy answers.

Some concluding comments:

  1. This conflict has no sign of ending soon. There is no political will in the short term to end this crisis. As humanitarian agencies we will need to ask what is our commitment to this crisis and how will we fund our response
  2. We need to find our voice again and as a humanitarian community speak about issues of protection and holding our governments and their allies at least, to the rules of war and international humanitarian law. Till now we have been completely silent.
  3. The refugee crisis in Europe has been temporarily contained because the Balkans route has been blocked other than to people smugglers. This has resulted in a backlog of refugees in Turkey and Greece. Turkey hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Greece over 60,000. The ACT Alliance reported that in Serbia, the number of refugees in just this past month increased from 4,000 to 5,000. Turkey has said that if the EU does not release the promised funds and give Turks visa free travel to Europe, they will open their borders with Greece and Bulgaria and let the refugees proceed towards Europe – creating a crisis again in the transit Eastern European countries, who are against the refugees. There are increasing number of refugees now starting in Egypt and trying to reach Italy, with more drowning in the Mediterranean. Yet there are so few humanitarian agencies responding.

Yet there are rays of hope in the midst of what seems a very discouraging scenario. For the first time in a long while, we are seeing local churches in a conflict as major humanitarian actors. Churches in Europe are speaking about being prophetic in the face of racism and xenophobia and demonstrating what the Kingdom of God looks like, that it is a place of compassion. We are seeing churches in Europe and the Middle East being transformed as a result. Finally, we are seeing increasing cooperation between Christian and Islamic NGOs and community organizations in Europe and the Middle East in helping the refugees – showing, that just maybe we can live in peace.

 

Is it for the Poor to Seek Justice and Liberation?

I have been intrigued that nowhere in Scripture does God encourage or exhort the poor to seek justice.[1]

Throughout the Bible the responsibility for social justice and care for the poor and those on the margins of life, is on society as a whole, on every individual. Micah 6:8 states in no uncertain terms what God requires. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” More importantly, this is not just a challenge to only the people of God but to everyone, because right at the beginning of Micah in 1:2 the prophet declares, “Hear, you people, all of you, listen, earth and all who live in it.”

Our son while they were in Bangladesh, reflecting on what he was seeing, wrote, “Development practitioners often over use the analogy “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” As our understanding of poverty has become more complex, this analogy has now been expanded to include power dynamics by asking who owns the lake that the man is fishing on. But there is still troubling evidence which reveals that despite the needs we may see around us, helping others doesn’t come easily.”

Most people in the developed “northern countries” live in social contexts where the acquiring and possession of wealth is a result of hard work and does not have any moral connotations. Hard work, rooted in the Protestant work ethic, is valued; the basic principle being that hard work results in prosperity. This in turn provides security, honor, and social and economic privileges. If people are poor, it is because they are lazy.

Because of this cherished value of hard work, most do not understand the role of unjust social and political systems that enslave people in poverty. They have a hard time understanding the teachings of Jesus, where it seems that wealth is often portrayed as evil and that the poor have special favor with God. Yet Jesus never condemned the rich for their wealth, but for not being compassionate to the poor.

While poverty may be caused by laziness, substance abuse and addiction, the Bible is very clear that the major cause of poverty is injustice. If we merely “empower” and train people and expect them to get out of poverty, when the real cause of their suffering is a system that traps them in poverty, we merely frustrate them. Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed recognized this. Power, authority, and wealth are never ceded easily. When power and authority are challenged by the poor and oppressed, even by non-violent means, the result is violence, and not necessarily a peaceful and egalitarian society.

Since poverty and oppression are so destructive, the process by which the poor are liberated from their bondages of poverty is critical. Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that must be saved from a burning building.” If the process is not handled properly (by the poor and the non-poor), “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” Violent means result in violent and oppressive systems.

So should the poor simply remain passive in their poverty. Proverbs is full of exhortations for hard work and taking responsibility. To the church at Rome which was predominantly lower middle class and poor migrants, Paul writes, Rom. 12:11, “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.”  In II Thess. 3:10 he reminds the Thessalonians, “While we were with you, we gave you the order: “Whoever doesn’t want to work shouldn’t be allowed to eat.” The poor need not be destitute and starve, nor are they to be dependent on the “system”.

Each person is made in the image of God and has the right to live with dignity. The various human rights laws affirm what God has already bestowed. The poor need to be aware of how God sees them – created in the image of the Living God. As they grow in confidence that they are not garbage and parasites to be avoided, they need to seek the rights already given to them by the law to live as part of society and not on its margins. But can they do this on their own when the social and political system benefits from maintaining the status quo and not allowing change?

I wonder what my hope and desire for the poor is? Is it that their lives become bearable and decent while they remain poor?  But if I desire to see them get out of poverty, they will not be able to do it on their own because the social, economic and political systems are against them and do not want to change the way things are. The Apostle Paul’s uses the image of the ‘body’ to characterize various individuals working together, in I Cor. 12 and Rom. 12. This had not only to do with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also of the stronger members of the body taking care of the weaker ones. Canadian theologian Bruce Longenecker refers to it as not communism, not charity, but community. The poor are not objects to be pitied.

I wonder if we have it wrong when we leave the poor to seek their rights on their own, when we who have the power and influence should be standing up and fighting for justice for the poor. Is it because we are comfortable with our Christianity and do not want to risk the privileges we enjoy in society by challenging the powerful and those in authority? If we are unable to change unjust systems, we at least need to be prophetic voices that speaks against injustice.

How are we then to live? The Bible definitely talks about being charitable and meeting the immediate needs of the poor and broken as being the hallmarks of a follower of Christ – the marks of a disciple. Jesus provides us a model of what it is like to work with the poor. 80% of the population of Palestine were poor (not destitute).

In the midst of a brutal occupation in 1st Century Palestine, where there was little justice, Jesus lived by the power of God. He demonstrated what the Kingdom of God was like by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, treating every human being regardless of who they were with dignity, challenging those who oppressed the poor as they sought to worship God (the money changers and the priests), and teaching about a God who cared and listened to their cries for help. He pointed them to a God who is loving and just, and challenged them to turn away from evil and worship Him. He dared to show the world that there was another Kingdom where there was justice and compassion, and this threatened those who were in power.

[1] The parable of the widow pleading with the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) is to teach about persistence in prayer rather than about the poor seeking justice.

God and Refugees: Foundations for Hope

Does God care for refugees and those who have been displaced? Is there a way for the church to respond to the needs of non-Christian refugees? These are questions that are provoking intense discussions in many churches in the western world. The following paper presented at a recently held Refugee Consultation addresses some of these issues.

God and Refugees: Foundations for Hope. The Church Responding to Refugees.

The refugee crisis engulfing the world right now is not a new phenomenon. It is only the latest wave of refugees who are fleeing conflict, persecution, destruction of their homes and livelihoods, and death. Displacement as a result of war and natural disasters has a long history through the ages. While there are legal difference between refugees and migrants, in reality there are very few differences because people move when they are unable to continue living and supporting their families where they are.

The level of human suffering of these waves of refugees requires the Church and Christians to understand God’s perspective on refugees. Yet how the church demonstrates the reality and compassion of Christ to those displaced will vary from context to context. While the majority of the refugees are comparatively poor, their needs are different from those who live in poverty, because refugees have lost their homes and their identity. Princeton theologian Daniel Migliore writes, “Confession of Jesus Christ takes place in particular historical and cultural contexts. Our response to the questions of who we say Jesus Christ is and how he helps us is shaped in important ways by the particular context in which these questions arise”.[1] This paper will explore the biblical, theological and missiological foundations, as well as some observations from current missions for this discussion. While most of what will be discussed is common for all refugees, there are some aspects that are specific to ministering to Muslim refugees.

To read the rest of the paper click here. God and Refugees – Foundations for Hope

[1] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapid, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

Christians as a Minority – Finding a Place in Society

As the challenge of the presence and integration of Muslim communities in Europe grows, I was reminded of something that was mentioned a number of years ago. The person said that historically Christian theology and teaching has assumed that Christians are a minority in society. Hence the teachings about being salt and light, about relating to governments that may seem hostile, people of other faiths and those who oppress you, and realizing that God allows “the wheat and the weeds” to exist side by side in society till the end of time. On the other hand, Muslim theology and teaching has assumed that Muslims are a majority in their particular context. There is very little in their theology about how to live as a minority in society. If they are minorities, it is not the ideal.

This would partly explain the struggle of Muslim communities across Europe and in many other parts of the world as they wonder how to be part of pluralistic societies. Their responses have ranged from establishing self-segregated communities to protect and preserve their identity, culture and faith, to being productive and contributing members of society, to extreme responses that seek to destroy the non-Muslim culture around them and establish what they would consider a “pure” society. Muslim thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan are trying to navigate these complexities with regards to Muslim identity, theology and practice in societies where they are minorities.

Interestingly in contrast, the Christianized world has increasingly struggled as it has become the dominant voice in many societies. They are drawing from Baptist pastor and Social Gospel proponent Walter Rauschenbusch’s concept that what was needed in society was a “social ideal” that drew from the teachings of Jesus. The thinking is that humanity organized according to the laws of God would influence and then embrace the social, economic and political dimensions of a larger socio-political system. So they use all the levers of the legal and political system to impose their image of the kingdom of God. There is little understanding of where social and religious minorities, and those who live on the margins fit into this kind of cultural and political Christianity. While laws ensure the wellbeing, safety and security of the population, attempts at legislating morality or enforcing conformity to a specific set of ideals, ignore the fact that moral change only comes through individual transformation. With industrialized societies becoming increasingly secular and churches haemorrhaging members, Christians in these societies are facing the prospect of becoming a minority again.

As minorities, how would Christians and the Church relate to society and its problems? While many have debated whether the church should be involved in addressing social issues, there is another discussion on what exactly is the purpose of the church addressing social issues. The debates in the Protestant and Evangelical worlds have described the purpose of the church addressing issues of marginalization, poverty and social justice in a variety of ways such as providing an opening to verbally share the Gospel, transforming society, being a witness and revealing the invisible Kingdom of God, and demonstrating the compassion of God for those who are broken. Regardless of the reasons, responding to human need is a prophetic witness to the reality of a God who is redeeming and restoring all of His creation. The Micah Declaration describes the balance of how this is done. “If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world.”

However, there is another dimension to the Church being involved in addressing social issues. Christian communities that are minorities in a country, especially where they are under threat, have been wondering how they can become an integral part of the national fabric. Too often they are perceived as not being indigenous and a part of mainstream society, but are seen as transplants of a “foreign” faith.

For minority Christian communities, this has become an issue of protection as well as one of identity. They see it as protection, because if they are valued for who they are and what they do, they will not be threatened and “cleansed” from the country. The issue of identity is key for them as they see themselves as being citizens of the country they live in; this is their home, their culture and their way of life. They have no desire to be living elsewhere.

Many are realizing that the only way they can ensure protection and safeguard their identity is by “doing good” and contributing to the well being of society. In countries like Syria, many churches have become places of compassion for people of all faiths and as a result are ensuring that they have a place in a country where the conflict is for power and of competing visions of who belongs in the country. In Lebanon, Christian organizations are on the forefront of issues such as addressing disability (especially among children) and protection of migrant domestic workers – issues that usually don’t register on the national consciousness. Historically, Christians across the world have been acknowledged for establishing schools, hospitals and printing presses (that enabled literacy), and for introducing improved agricultural systems that ensured food security. They were seen as an integral part of society because of the contributions they made for the development and well being of society.

These lessons have deep historical roots. The early Christians, who were a very small minority in the Roman Empire, understood this. Missiologists David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen write that the Early Church tried “to demonstrate that they were able to take their proper place in the empire and more than any other group to make a unique positive contribution to the stability and moral fiber of society. This included personal evangelism as well as good works.”

Maybe the global Church has something to say of what it means to be a minority and how to live in a pluralistic society that we need to listen to.

 

Being Righteous

The word “righteous” is out of fashion now days. It conjures up images of humourless people, out of touch with this world, calling their misery, joy. It’s an unfair caricature. If one were to ask an ordinary member of any church what does it mean to be righteous, their answer would include ideas of being blameless, living a pure life, doing good, and being holy. They usually have a specific person in mind and that the person somehow reflects the character of God, who is holy.

The root of the Hebrew word for righteousness (sedeq, sedaqa, saddiq) connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard.[1] The meanings of the word include rightness, lawful, and justice.[2] However, British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn explains that there are significant differences between the Greek and Hebrew understandings of righteousness. Dunn states that according to the Greek worldview, “righteousness” is an idea or ideal “against which the individual and individual action can be measured.”[3] It is a state of moral perfection. So if God is moral perfection and righteous, human beings are then measured against God’s righteousness.

In contrast, in Hebrew, the ethical aspect of the word righteous involves how people relate to each other. “The man who is righteous tries to preserve the peace and prosperity of the community by fulfilling the commands of God in regard to others.”[4] In the post-exilic period after the return of the Hebrew people from Babylon, the word developed to mean benevolence, almsgiving, etc. as the acts of a godly man.[5] So in Hebrew thought “righteousness” is understood more as a relational concept – “as the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is part.”[6] Every relationship has obligations. So to be righteous then meant fulfilling one’s obligations as part of the relationships they have.

While there is no doubt that God is morally perfect, the understanding of “the righteousness of God” is more in line with Hebrew thought, where God’s righteousness can be understood as God’s faithfulness to His people, where He fulfils His obligations to them. German theologian G. Schrenk states that sedaqa implies a relationship. He writes, “This linking of right and salvation is most deeply grounded in the covenant concept. Sedaqa is the execution of covenant faithfulness and the covenant promises. God’s righteousness as His judicial reign means that in covenant faithfulness to His people He vindicates and saves them.”[7] Simply put, Dunn summarizes God’s righteousness was the “fulfilment of His covenant obligation as Israel’s God in delivering, saving, and vindicating Israel, despite Israel’s own failure.”[8] So, just as God was righteous in His relationship with Israel, He is righteous with the rest of His creation also. (Rom. 1: 16-17)

So “righteousness” is also understood as God’s faithfulness to fulfil His obligations to human beings and His creation, because as creator He has a relationship with them. Even though they are fallen and marred by sin, God has an obligation to redeem them and He is faithful to do that through Christ.

Understanding God’s righteousness as obligation in the context of a relationship, explains why God is concerned about the poor. The poor are not just marred by sin, but also by social and economic oppression and injustice. The Psalmist identifies God as “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing: but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” (Ps. 68:5-6). God’s redemption is not just spiritual, but addresses the totality of human beings in every sphere of their lives. Therefore because of his righteousness God restores human beings (and His creation) to the condition He intended for them.

This understanding of righteousness explains what is meant when it states in Matt. 1:19 that Joseph was a righteous man. He was a person who would fulfil his obligation to Mary to not only do what is right but also care for her in the context of his relationship to her. Similarly, Cornelius is referred to as being righteous (Acts 10:22) and the Bible says that he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly (Acts 10:2). He fulfilled his obligation to those in need and to God.

Because human beings are made righteous by God through Christ, they are then able to fulfil their obligation not only to God, but also within the social context they live in. Prov. 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor;” and Eph. 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ to do good works.”

One’s understanding of righteousness will influence whether an individual and community of faith will be involved in addressing the issues of social injustice. If the understanding of righteousness is only that of moral perfection, the focus is primarily on attaining that moral perfection through Christ and maintaining it.[9] If righteousness is also understood as an obligation in the context of the social relationships one has, then the focus will also be on addressing the needs of the poor, the marginalized and others suffering in society.

[1] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Workbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1980), 752. For a detailed analysis of the word, see pages 752-755.

[2] Strong’s Concordance 6664 tzedek – righteous, integrity, equity, justice, straightness.

[3] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 341.

[4] Harris, Theological, 753.

[5] Ibid, 754.

[6] Dunn, The Theology, 341.

[7] Quoted in Harris, Theological, 755.

[8] Dunn, The Theology, 342.

[9] This is seen mostly clearly in movements such as the Holiness Movement among others.